Story at a glance
- As states issue stay-at-home orders, vehicle traffic is down across the country.
- A map tracking vehicle miles traveled shows the change in travel patterns since the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
- With less miles of vehicle travel in some states, vehicle emissions are also down.
Just a few months ago, the thought of cutting vehicle travel by millions of miles seemed like an impractical solution to minimizing the effects of vehicle emissions on the environment. But with millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a drop in pollution has become an unintended, but not unwelcome, side effect.
A map by Streetlight Data, a data collection company that uses machine learning to analyze transportation patterns, shows the change in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) across the country, down to each county. As of April 3, VMT has gone down by 95 percent in some areas and only risen by a maximum of 24 percent in others.
The data comes from anonymized location records from smart phones and navigation devices in connected cars and trucks and has been analyzed each day since March 1, when the coronavirus outbreak was just starting to spread in the United States.
For each county, the map shows the total VMT and the percent change from the baseline, or the average daily VMT in January. Counties in the South as well as the Pacific Northwest have shown some of the least change in travel patterns, while counties in the Northeast generally show more change in VMT.
In California, where the first large-scale stay-at-home orders were issued, most counties show a decrease in VMT over the last month, with the most percent change in the counties near the Bay Area and on the coast.
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While Streetlight doesn’t have data on the corresponding change in vehicle emissions, some counties have begun releasing their own figures. In Los Angeles, where transportation-related emissions account for about 80 percent of the region's air pollution, Cesunica Ivey, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside, told the LAist that hourly levels of nitrogen dioxide dropped up to 50 percent in some parts of the area during the evening commute. Nitrogen dioxide is emitted from fuel-burning cars and trucks and can get trapped in the ozone.
On the other side of the country, researchers at Columbia University have seen emissions of carbon monoxide over New York City decline more than 50 percent below normal levels, according to electrek.
Experts still aren’t sure what this will mean in the long run, or what will happen when stay-at-home orders are lifted. But for now, you can track the changes in your county on this map.
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